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Why we need to redesign cities to be age-friendly

Ageing populations and the onward march of time require a rapid rethink of urban areas, writes Megan Tatum

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Cities need to become age-friendly. Image by Stocksnap on Pixabay
Cities need to become age-friendly. Image by Stocksnap on Pixabay

By the end of 2020 residents in the former tin mining town of Taiping, Malaysia will be able to climb on board its first age-friendly bus.

 

Passengers will be able to alight at one of 39 stops en route, including the market, the train station and the town’s famous Lake Garden, with only 25 carefully spaced seats on board. Best of all, said Taiping Municipal Council’s Hasmi Hassanuddin, the bus is entirely electric eliminating the rocking and vibrations that can leave older passengers unsteady.

 

It’s one of the first initiatives the town is planning since officially signing up to the WHO’s growing global network of age-friendly cities and communities in late 2019.

 

More than 1,000 cities and communities, spanning 41 countries, have signed up to the World Health Organisation’s age-friend cities and communities

 

For Taiping, the trigger to do so came in 2017, explained project lead Hassanuddin. New research that found by 2040 those aged 65 and over in Malaysia would triple to six million sparked a national discussion. “We wanted to consider how we could respond not only in terms of physical infrastructure but in terms of the how the community works and lives together,” he said.

 

At first public reaction was sceptical. But “we’ve worked on awareness and have had so many members of the public giving us their suggestions on how we could develop the city, and what they wanted to see.” Alongside the electric public bus, there are also hopes to equip the heritage buildings for which the town is known with safer walkways and better access.

 

“The beauty of Malaysia too is we also have large celebrations, such as Chinese New Year and Hari Raya that involve all races and ethnicities,” added Hassanuddin. “That’s an avenue we can utilise too by ensuring all generations can get involved.”

 

Globally those 60 and over are set to double to two billion by 2050, with 57% of this demographic living in towns and cities.

 

The plan is for these initiatives, backed by Malaysia’s Institute of Ageing and its Ministry for Community Development to feed into a national framework for age-friendly communities to apply across Malaysia in the years to come.

 

In so doing it will join the more than 1,000 cities and communities, spanning 41 countries, that have signed up to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) global network since it was created in 2010.

 

The concept first saw traction in the early 2000s, as the WHO encouraged countries to develop comprehensive action plans to cater to ageing populations, and counter negative narratives on their economic, political and social contributions. Globally those 60 and over are set to double to two billion by 2050, with 57% of this demographic living in towns and cities.

 

“It’s an agenda that has brought together housing providers, those working in transport, neighbourhood organisations, community development partners and more,” said Tine Buffel, a research fellow at the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing. Initiatives have included cross-generational education courses in Chile, dementia cafes in Australia and modifying outdoor environments in Canada, by adding new sidewalks, improving signage and building benches. “It has created a different way of thinking about ageing.”

 

The multi-generational city hall is equipped with concierge, free walking aids, stick holders in waiting areas, and even heated pathways to avoid slippages when there’s ice

 

In Akita, in Japan – which joined the network in 2011 – it has touched almost every facet of infrastructure in the city. Its one-coin bus service, for example, allows those 65 and over to now pay for any route with a 100 yen coin improving affordability and accessibility. In 2016 it also completed work on a multi-generational city hall equipped with concierge, free walking aids, stick holders in waiting areas, and even heated pathways to avoid slippages when there’s ice.

 

Improving narratives around ageing has also been a major part of the project, explained Yuko Kodama, chief of age-friendly initiatives at its health department. “We first joined the global network aiming to create a society where the elderly can be shifted from ‘those who need support’ to ‘those who support society.’” To do so the city has coordinated citizen groups attended by people from their 20s to their 80s “making friendships between the generations to inspire and help each other spontaneously.”

 

Success comes in reflecting the diversity within older populations, added Duffel. “That means working with older people at a local level to create policies that make sense. It’s about creating the mechanisms that allow this co-production to happen.” In the UK city of Manchester, for example, where Duffel has worked closely with authorities on its own age-friendly status, older people have been trained as cultural champions to work directly alongside cultural institutions in the city and improve their accessibility. At the city’s School of Architecture, students are also paired with older locals to design more tailored green spaces or garden projects.

 

A lack of resource at WHO level to support and monitor initiatives is one challenge

 

Until recently though much of this work has tended to centre in developed nations. While in Spain 33% of the population lived in a participating community in 2018, for example, only 0.2% did in India. In Africa meanwhile, there is not a single participating member. This is despite the fact that 80% of the two billion older people expected to be living globally by 2050 will reside in low or middle-income countries.

 

A lack of resource at WHO level to support and monitor initiatives is one challenge, said Duffel. As is the fact that developing age-friendly communities can require significant investment and must be paired with wider public service initiatives to appeal to governments in less developed economies.

 

But with the growing participation of countries such as Malaysia, there are signs that attitudes and appetite for the concept are slowly beginning to shift. After all, “in planning for older populations, we’re planning for ourselves,” said Hassanuddin. “These are changes that each one of us will likely use in our lifetime at some point.”

 

This article first appeared on apolitical.co/

 

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